Friday, March 5, 2021

yataḥ kr̥ṣṇas tato jayaḥ - Tales from the Mahabharata

In an earlier article, I looked at the thirteen occurrences of the words, यतो धर्मस्ततो जयः (where there is dharma, there is victory) in the Mahabharata, using the Critical Edition as my reference. These words are spoken by Arjuna, Dhritarashtra, Drona, Gandhari, Karna, Krishna, and Sanjaya.

These words are also the emblem of the Supreme Court of India. The first time these words are spoken in the epic is in the Udyoga Parva, by Dhritarashtra, and the last time by Bhishma, in the Anushasana Parva, just before he takes Krishna’s permission to depart for heaven.

I also pointed out, as best as I could find, only once are these words, an expansion of the earlier phrase, spoken in the Mahabharata, Bhishma – यतः कृष्णस्ततो धर्मो यतो धर्मस्ततो जयः (where there is Krishna, there is dharma; where there is dharma, there is victory), but a variation of these words can also be found in the text – यतो धर्मस्ततः कृष्णो यतः कृष्णस्ततो जयः (where there is dharma, Krishna is there; where there is Krishna, victory is there), also spoken by Bhishma.

So, that led me to another search, of another set of words – यतः कृष्णस्ततो जयः (where there is Krishna, there is victory). These words, in this order, are said six times in the Mahabharata (going by the Critical Edition) – thrice in the Bhishma Parva (all in the Bhagavada Gita Parva, though not in the actual Bhagavada Gita), and once each in the Adi (Viduragamana), Udyoga (Yana-Sandhi), and Shalya Parvas (Gada-Yuddha).

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Curse of Bigness, by Tim Wu - Review

The Curse of Bigness: How Corporate Giants Came to Rule the World, by Ti Wu

Evidence of the power that tech behemoths have come to wield in the world was on display on 7 January 2021, when Google, Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Snapchat, Discord, and others came together to ban the 45th US President, Donald Trump, from their platforms. It was reminiscent of Stalin’s Great Purge, with a promise of more to come. With even Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and German Chancellor Angel Merkel criticising the ban, back in stark focus are issues of intolerance, accountability, free speech, incitement, and monopoly power.

On 20 October 2020, the US Department of Justice sued internet search giant Google over what it claimed was an unlawfully maintained monopoly. A few weeks later, on 9 December, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 other states and districts sued social media behemoth Facebook, alleging that it had illegally maintained its social networking monopoly through anticompetitive conduct. How companies, especially tech companies, came to wield so much power and become the behemoths they are today is the subject of legal scholar Tim Wu’s short book, The Curse of Bigness.

Monopolies are not new; in fact, have been around for centuries, with the monarchy in England employing what was called the Crown monopoly as political patronage as well as to encourage innovation. The English Parliament banned monopolies in 1624 by enacting the “Statute of Monopolies”, which became the precursor to almost every anti-monopoly law, including the American Sherman Act and the EU’s competition laws. It, however, did not stop the King of England from granting a de-facto monopoly on the sale and export of tea in the British colonies to the British East India Company. This led to what is now known as the Boston Tea Party episode in December 1773, which led to harsh steps taken in retaliation by the British, and eventually sparked the American Revolution.

This anti-monopoly spirit ran deep in some of the founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson called for a declaration of rights to include a “freedom of commerce against monopolies”. Much of the zeal the American government showed in breaking up what it called “Trusts” of the Gilded Age can probably be attributed to the ideas of American jurist and later justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, who came to believe in the dangers of what he called “excessive bigness”. One of the triggers was J.P. Morgan’s attempts to combine more than three-hundred firms into a single entity—the New Haven Railroad, creating a monopoly of the Northeastern transportation infrastructure. Brandeis wrote that “Men are not free if dependent industrially on the arbitrary will of others”. Freedom, in his view, meant freedom not only in a political and individual self, but also freedom from industrial domination and exploitation.

Post World War II Europe was so scarred by the experiences of monopolies, particularly in Nazi Germany, that its anti-monopoly ideology was even stronger than in America and came to be known as Ordoliberalism. Ordoliberals, Wu writes, “wanted a state that was strong enough to break private power, but not so strong as to take over society. They wanted the state to guarantee certain economic securities, but to leave the provisioning of most goods to the market process.”
In 1945, American company Alcoa was broken up, and in the 1960s, anti-monopoly action by the regulators peaked, with the Justice Department going after banks, grocery stores, shoe manufacturers, and others, implementing what it saw as a “broad anti-concentration mandate” given to it by Congress to stop “creeping concentration”.

By 1969, IBM, with annual revenues of $7.2 billion, ranked as the fifth-largest company in America. Only General Motors, Exxon Mobil, Ford Motor, and General Electric were bigger. The same year, it was sued by the Justice Department with “monopoly maintenance”, and the case went to trial in 1975. The trial continued for another six years, and after what many called “a farce of mind-boggling proportions”, the case was dropped shortly after Ronald Reagan became President. The case, however, did result in two major changes. One, even before the case began, IBM made the decision to unbundle its software from its hardware offerings. This effectively birthed the modern software industry as we know it. The other, in 1981, was when IBM entered the personal computer market and chose to make it “open”—with a hard drive from Seagate, printer from Epson, processor from Intel, and the operating system from Microsoft.

Microsoft made the most of IBM’s decision and grew to become the world’s largest software company, pursuing a strategy of bundling applications with its Windows operating system to enter and dominate new markets. This strategy did not go down well with the regulators or competitors and it wound up facing the ire of the government when it was sued by the Justice Department in the 1990s. The case went to trial in 1998 and the government won in both the district court and in appeal, but just when it seemed a breakup of the company was inevitable, regulatory winds changed with the election of a new President in 2000.

The trial did, however, reveal the strong-arm tactics of the company and the ruthlessness of Bill Gates, its co-founder. The after-effects of the trial were to “distract” the company from competing effectively in the booming internet age, with lawyers looking over the executives’ shoulders. This paved the way for companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others to thrive, grow, and grow.
During the George Bush and Obama years, there would be virtually no major anti-trust action by the government. These regulatory shifts in anti-monopoly action over the last four decades can mostly be traced to what Wu calls the victory of “neoliberalism” in American academia. This philosophy argued that the one and only measure of consumer welfare was prices. Lower prices meant that consumers could not be seen as harmed, and therefore, companies could not be penalised for concentrating too much market share and power as long as prices did not go up. Neoliberals were also “opposed to almost all forms of state intervention in the economy”. Aaron Director, “the father of the neo-conservative Chicago School of antitrust,” believed that breaking up larger companies protected weaker companies and reduced efficiency by stopping these larger companies from lowering prices. This thought percolated to the regulators, with the European regulator, in 1997, suggesting the “lowered prices” and “consumer welfare” were its goals.

What have been the consequences of this thinking? The market for glasses and sunglasses, which looks a hotbed of competition with companies such as Armani, Ray-Ban, Tiffany, DKNY, and dozens of others available to choose from. Except it isn’t. All these brands are owned, or exclusively licensed, by just one company—Luxottica. Consumers pay over $200 for a pair of glasses that cost no more than $20 to manufacture. Prescription glasses retail for $400, but cost under $20. Or the beer market, where two companies—InBev and Heineken—own nearly “every single major brewer in the world”. In the technology industry, it allowed Facebook to buy out fast-rising competitor Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, and WhatsApp for $16 billion in 2014. It allowed Google to acquire 270 companies, including competitors like Waze, YouTube, and AdMob. The change in attitudes even in Silicon Valley was captured best by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who wrote, “only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits”.

Perhaps the most alarming lesson one may draw from the book is how the growth of cartels and monopolies may foreshadow a coming of totalitarianism. In many ways, the last couple of years showed how tech platforms that now control all social media apps have begun to increasingly exercise censorship on content that they determine to be ideologically contrary to their own beliefs.
Wu writes that “extreme concentration of German industry before the war was an aid to Hitler’s rise to power…” This is lesson we simply cannot afford to ignore. Indeed, German companies like United Steel, Krupp, Siemens, IG Farben and others were major beneficiaries as well as contributors to the Nazi military build-up of the 1930s. IG Farben was perhaps the only company to run its own concentration camp as well as operate a rubber plant in the Auschwitz campus. In case the name IG Farben does not ring a bell, the company was broken up into its original six constituent companies, including BASF, Agfa, Hoechst, and Bayer.

While it is too short to do justice to a subject as complex as antitrust enforcement, Tim Wu’s book nonetheless serves as an accessible primer to some of the thinking that has guided authorities in the US and Europe, and what challenges these authorities face in their enforcement battles against companies that have become larger and more powerful than ever before.

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on the 16th of January, 2021.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
© 2021, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Where thee is Dharma, there is Victory - Tales from the Mahabharata

The emblem of the Supreme Court of India is “yato dharmas tato jayaḥ”, which is translated as “where there is dharma, there is victory”. These words are taken from the Mahabharata. When asked to identify the person who speaks these words, most people would answer that it was Gandhari who responded thus when her son Duryodhana came to her before the Kurukshetra war to get her blessings for victory. Gandhari did not bless her son with victory; she instead told him that victory would be where there was dharma. While Gandhari did say these words, they are uttered not once, but thirteen times in the Mahabharata, if we take the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata as our reference. 

Some other factoids that should interest people, as they did me. These words are uttered once each by Arjuna, Dhritarashtra, Sanjaya, Drona, Karna, Gandhari, and Krishna. Bhishma and Vyasa say these words thrice each, unsurprisingly. They are spoken once each to Vidura and Karna, twice each to Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana, Gandhari, and Yudhishthira, and thrice to Krishna.

Finally, these words occur once each in the Drona, Shalya, and Anushasan Parvas, twice in the Stri Parva, thrice in the Udyoga Parva, and five times in the Bhishma Parva.

Let’s dig into the thirteen occurrences, in the order they appear in the Mahabharata.
Image credit:detechter (via IndicToday)

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Bhagavad Gita and The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials, by Bibek Debroy - Review


The Bhagavad Gita, Translated by Bibek Debroy

The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials by Bibek Debroy

This is a review of two books. Both about the Bhagavad Gita, both written by the same person, both obviously similar in many respects, but both also different.

Let’s take The Bhagavad Gita translation first. It is a verse by verse translation of the 700 verses, or 699, depending on how you count them, of the Bhagavad Gita, with the Sanskrit shlokas (verses) on one page and the English translation on the facing page. There is no interpretation, no commentary; just a literal translation of each verse. The author (Bibek Debroy, not Vyasa) writes in the Introduction that ‘A translator’s job is to translate, not to interpret.’ and somewhat modestly, ‘Interpretations are best left to those who are learned.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Who Killed Shastri, by Vivek Agnihotri - Review

Who Killed Shastri, by Vivek Agnihotri

Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s second prime minister, died in Tashkent in the early hours of the 11th of January, 1966. This was shortly after he signed a peace accord between India and Pakistan, brokered by the Soviet Union. He was cremated in his hometown after his body was brought back to India. In case people are wondering, another prime minister from the Congress party, not from the Nehru dynasty, was denied a funeral in the national capital. 

Regarding Shastri’s death, these are the only incontrovertible facts that people agree upon. Why is that? Because Indians, like everyone else, love a good conspiracy theory. Because conspiracy theories behind his death have been used to point fingers at the alleged role of foreign powers and the complicity of certain politicians and political families on the other. Because no one disputed the circumstances of his death till several years later, when it was politically expedient to do so.

Thus goes one line of argumentation. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Kanika Niti - Mahabharata

Lessons From The Mahabharata: Kanika Niti – The Dead Inspire No Fear

The Shanti and Anushasan Parvas of the Mahabharata dwell at length on statecraft and the duties of a king as a ruler in normal times (Raj-dharma), in times of distress (Apad-dharma), and so on (Dana-dharma, Moksha-dharma). There are other mini treatises on statecraft to be found in the text, Vidura Niti being one notable example (contained entirely in Prajagara Parva, within Udyoga Parva). Another popular one is Kanika Niti, but which has been excised from the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. It is nonetheless a notable exposition that deserves to be retold.
Dhritarashtra frets. Mahabharata, Special Issue, Vol. 3, Amar Chitra Katha 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Vidura Niti - 10 - Forgiveness, conduct, and the end

common refrain of Dhritarashtra was to bemoan the vicissitudes of fate, the meaningless of karma, and the supremacy of destiny. It was perhaps his way of not taking responsibility for his actions. In some ways, he was the antithesis of Krishna, who was the ultimate karmayogi. The seventh chapter of Vidura Niti begins in a similar vein. Dhritarashtra says, "Man is not the master of his destiny. He is like a wooden puppet dangling from a string. The creator has made him subject to destiny." While Dhritarashtra seemed to be coming round to accepting Vidura's views, the love for his sons was irreconcilable, in his opinion, with doing what was right for the Pandavas.

धृतराष्ट्र उवाच
सर्वं त्वमायतीयुक्तं भाषसे प्राज्ञसंमतम्
न चोत्सहे सुतं त्यक्तुं यतो धर्मस्ततो जयः [5.39.7]
'Dhritarashtra said, "All that you have said has been approved of by the wise and is for my welfare. But I cannot abandon my son. Where there is dharma, there is victory."

He says much the same thing towards the end of Vidura Niti - "My inclination has always been to turn towards the Pandavas. But whenever I meet Duryodhana, it turns in a contrary direction. No mortal one is capable of transgressing destiny. I think that destiny is the one who acts and human endeavour is futile."

Vidura has a solution for this dilemma also. He suggests to the king that he "Give them a few villages so that they can sustain themselves. ... Your sons will be protected through this deed." This is also the message that Krishna delivers to the king at Hastinapur (Bhagvata Yana parva). Duryodhana had committed an evil act earlier, and it was incumbent on the king to rectify it now. Vidura advised the king that quarrels with relatives were ill-advised. He said:
ज्ञातयस्तारयन्तीह ज्ञातयो मज्जयन्ति च
सुवृत्तास्तारयन्तीह दुर्वृत्ता मज्जयन्ति च [5.39.23]
"In this world, relatives rescue and relatives make one sink. Those who follow good conduct, rescue. Those who follow evil conduct, make one sink."

Vidura's words on humility and good conduct are well worth reproducing:
अवृत्तिं विनयो हन्ति हन्त्यनर्थं पराक्रमः
हन्ति नित्यं क्षमा क्रोधमाचारो हन्त्यलक्षणम् [5.39.32]
"Humility destroys bad conduct. Valour destroys adverse circumstances. Forgiveness always destroys anger. Good conduct destroys evil omens."

After the Pandavas were exiled, Yudhishthira had told Draupadi the greatness of forgiveness, that "Forgiveness is dharma. Forgiveness is sacrifices. Forgiveness is the Vedas. Forgiveness is the sacred texts," and so on. The shlokas start off as: क्षमा धर्मः क्षमा यज्ञः क्षमा वेदाः क्षमा श्रुतम् [3.3.36a]. Here Vidura adds exquisite nuance to the concept of forgiveness: 

क्षमेदशक्तः सर्वस्य शक्तिमान्धर्मकारणात् [5.39.46a]
"A weak person must forgive everything. A strong person must do that for the sake of dharma."

Of course, the situation was different when Yudhishthira spoke the words, uttered more out of compulsion and a recognition of the predicament facing the Pandavas at the time, so it is important to place those words, and any other from the Mahabharata, in their appropriate context to gain a true appreciation of their import.

This chapter ends with more advice from Vidura on what one should sorrow over, what causes aging, what is the cause of diminishing, and more.
  • अक्रोधेन जयेत्क्रोधमसाधुं साधुना जयेत्
  • जयेत्कदर्यं दानेन जयेत्सत्येन चानृतम् [5.39.58]
  • "Anger should be conquered with lack of anger.
  • Wickedness should be conquered with goodness.
  • Miserliness should be conquered with generosity.
  • Falsehood should be conquered with truth."

  • अविद्यः पुरुषः शोच्यः शोच्यं मिथुनमप्रजम्
  • निराहाराः प्रजाः शोच्याः शोच्यं राष्ट्रमराजकम् [5.39.62]
  • "One should sorrow over a man who is without learning. 
  • One should sorrow over a couple that has no offspring. 
  • One should sorrow over subjects who are hungry. 
  • One should sorrow over a kingdom that has no king."

  • अध्वा जरा देहवतां पर्वतानां जलं जरा
  • असंभोगो जरा स्त्रीणां वाक्शल्यं मनसो जरा [5.39.63]
  • "Those who have bodies age through travels. 
  • Mountains age through rain. 
  • The lack of intercourse ages women. 
  • Harsh words age the mind."

  • अनाम्नायमला वेदा ब्राह्मणस्याव्रतं मलम्
  • कौतूहलमला साध्वी विप्रवासमलाः स्त्रियः [5.39.64]
  • "The Vedas are tarnished if they are not recounted. 
  • Brahmanas are tarnished from lack of vows. 
  • Curiosity tarnishes chaste women. 
  • Banishment from home tarnishes women. 

  • सुवर्णस्य मलं रूप्यं रूप्यस्यापि मलं त्रपु
  • ज्ञेयं त्रपुमलं सीसं सीसस्यापि मलं मलम् [5.39.65]
  • Silver tarnishes gold. 
  • Tin tarnishes silver. 
  • Lead tarnishes tin. 
  • Dust tarnishes lead."

  • न स्वप्नेन जयेन्निद्रां न कामेन स्त्रियं जयेत्
  • नेन्धनेन जयेदग्निं न पानेन सुरां जयेत् [5.39.66]
  • "Do not vanquish sleep with more sleep. 
  • Do not vanquish women through desire. 
  • Do not conquer a fire by kindling it. 
  • Do not conquer thirst through liquor."

In closing, Vidura exhorts Dhritarashtra to give up desire, for "Those who have thousands live. Those who have hundreds also live." (सहस्रिणोऽपि जीवन्ति जीवन्ति शतिनस्तथा - 5.39.68a)

Vidura continues in the next chapter, telling the king that "Hope destroys steadfastness. Death destroys prosperity. Anger destroys riches. Miserliness destroys fame. Failure to tend destroys animals. O king! Even one single angry brahmana destroys a kingdom."
(आशा धृतिं हन्ति समृद्धिमन्तकः; क्रोधः श्रियं हन्ति यशः कदर्यता
अपालनं हन्ति पशूंश्च राज;न्नेकः क्रुद्धो ब्राह्मणो हन्ति राष्ट्रम् - 5.40.7)

Vidura says that the objective of his advising the king was for him to be content and to give up the transient. The body was transient, and only a person's deeds followed him, just as relatives and well-wishers returned after casting a dead person's body into the fire, it was the dead person's deeds that followed him. 

Here, Vidura invokes vivid imagery to present a picture of the soul, deeds, and more, and which is worth reproducing in full: 
आत्मा नदी भारत पुण्यतीर्था; सत्योदका धृतिकूला दमोर्मिः
तस्यां स्नातः पूयते पुण्यकर्मा; पुण्यो ह्यात्मा नित्यमम्भोऽम्भ एव [5.40.19]
The soul is a river. Purity represents its tirthas. Truthfulness is its water. Steadfastness constitutes the banks. Self-control represents the waves. Bathing in these, a performer of pure deeds purifies himself. The soul becomes pure and is like water in the eternal waters. 


कामक्रोधग्राहवतीं पञ्चेन्द्रियजलां नदीम्
कृत्वा धृतिमयीं नावं जन्मदुर्गाणि संतर [5.40.20]
There is a river in which the five senses are the water and desire and anger are the crocodiles. Make a boat out of steadfastness and cross the difficult eddies of repeated birth.

Dhritarashtra began the seventh chapter with a lament about the primacy of destiny. He ends the eighth chapter with another lament - "I think that destiny is the one who acts and human endeavour is futile.

In the last chapter of Vidura Niti, Dhritarashtra asks Vidura whether there was anything he had not yet spoken about. Vidura answered that the sage Sanatsujata was the one who could speak with the king. The sage manifested himself and Vidura requested the sage to clarify the king's doubts.

This ends Prajagara Parva, which contains Vidura Niti.

Note: Translated excerpts from Bibek Debroy’s unabridged, ten-volume, English translation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin from 2010 to 2015. The translations here are from volume 4. The Sanskrit verses are John Smith’s revision of Prof. Muneo Tokunaga’s version of the text, and available online at

This was first published in Indic Today on Sep 18, 2020.

© 2020, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Vidura Niti - 9 - Long arms, trust, and fools

Remember what Vidura said towards the end of the previous chapter, that someone who incites his enemy "cannot presume to be secure, only because he is a long distance away"

Vidura adds to that in this chapter, the sixth, of Vidura Niti. Running away after striking an intelligent person is of no use because "An intelligent person has long arms and when injured, will cause hurt in return." Essentially, shoot and scoot isn't going to cut it with a smart adversary.
अपकृत्वा बुद्धिमतो दूरस्थोऽस्मीति नाश्वसेत्
दीर्घौ बुद्धिमतो बाहू याभ्यां हिंसति हिंसितः [5.38.8]